Each week, Pedro Morlet knocks on doors in the Bay Area, looking for illegal immigrants.
Morlet isn't an immigration agent. He's a real estate agent, and he's scouting for business.
"Do you want a house, work and pay taxes but don't have a Social Security number?" reads his flier, written in Spanish and tailored to his potential customers. "We can help you LEGALLY!"
Across the country, particularly in Texas and parts of the Midwest, hundreds of illegal immigrants have bought homes using special lending programs that bypass the need for a Social Security number. Now, with backing from some of the country's largest financial institutions, this newest effort to tap customers for the real estate market is moving to the nation's largest concentration of illegal immigrants -- California.
As buyers begin to queue up, real estate is becoming the latest arena to highlight the often-bizarre contradictions of American immigration policy.
Advocates of tighter controls on immigration oppose the idea of illegal residents buying homes here. Lending money to illegal immigrants encourages others to cross the border, they say.
"They have no right to own property in the United States because they have no right to be here in the first place," said Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization.
Legally, that's not quite true. Unlike some countries -- Mexico, for example -- the United States generally does not restrict foreign citizens from buying real estate.
But for years, because qualifying for a mortgage required a Social Security number, the only way for an illegal immigrant to do so was by using a false number. In addition, such immigrants often were rejected or overlooked by legitimate lenders, leaving them vulnerable to fraud.
Lenders have a powerful incentive to find ways to get around those barriers: tens of thousands of potential customers. The National Assn. of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals estimates that more than 216,000 undocumented immigrants, including many who have been in the country for decades, could buy homes if they had better access to the market.
Despite their undocumented status, many prospective buyers earn steady incomes, face little risk of deportation and are desperate to become homeowners. Their purchases would amount to millions of dollars in mortgages.
"You have gainfully employed people who have been stuffing money in the mattress for a long time," said Mary Mancera, spokeswoman for the association. "There are quite a few who have been working and saving money and raising kids and going about their lives and want to achieve that next step, but haven't been able to because of the barriers."
Silvia Avalos, a hairstylist, and her husband, Jose Luis Avalos, a busboy, are among the people Mancera is talking about. They were tired of spending their money on rent each month but didn't want to use fake Social Security numbers to buy a home.
After friends told them they could buy legally, they found a two-bedroom condo northeast of San Francisco for $280,000. They moved in as soon as escrow closed.
"We saw it as an investment," Silvia Avalos said. "While you are here, you have somewhere to live that is yours. And if you return home [to Mexico], you can sell it."
Another prospective buyer, Aaron Sanchez, was pre-approved for a $200,000 loan after taking a class sponsored by ACORN, an advocacy group for the poor, on how to make offers and apply for mortgages. The 32-year-old illegal immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, has worked at the same furniture company in the San Gabriel Valley for 14 years. He wants each of his two children to have a room. It is a luxury, he knows, that will be hard to afford.
"I think I can find a house," Sanchez said, "but a small house."
The opportunity to get people like the Avalos and Sanchez families into the market begins with the IRS, which is happy to collect peoples' taxes, regardless of their immigration status.
Nearly a decade ago, the IRS began giving out Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers so people without Social Security numbers could pay taxes. Since then, more than 8 million applicants have received numbers, and about 2 million are used annually on tax returns.
The IRS knows illegal immigrants are using the numbers to get mortgages.
"We don't have control over whatever the taxpayers do with the numbers other than filing a tax return," spokeswoman Irma Trevino said.
In addition to the ID numbers, immigrants must show that they have been in the country, worked and paid taxes for at least two years in order to get mortgages. Because many do not have credit scores, they must prove their good credit through such documents as utility and cellphone bills, rent receipts, bank statements and paychecks. The interest rates and loan costs are in line with those of buyers who have Social Security numbers.
So far, the trend has begun slowly in California: Only about 50 houses and condominiums have closed escrow.